Just in case the decomposing flesh and the eating people doesn’t clue you in, here’s how you diagnose what’s wrong with a zombie.
Here’s something to distract you on a Friday afternoon. (And if you’re at work, it will look like you’re very seriously examining something on your computer.) It’s a short story I did a while ago called “Saturday Night Dead: The Oral History of SNL During The Zombie Outbreak.” It combines two of my abiding obsessions, zombies and “Saturday Night Live.” I know Seth Grahame-Smith mashed up zombies with Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve never been that highbrow.
Anyway. It might be in poor taste. It might be funny. You can read it here on the site, or you can download a PDF for free from Scribd. All I ask is that you don’t try to sell it or otherwise rip it off. Hope you enjoy.
- Have you ever wondered why zombies and vampires are so popular now? Why they’re being shoved from every orifice of pop culture and into our lives? Consider this: in a few days, the planet’s population will reach seven billion. And they will all want to eat, in a world with rapidly dwindling resources. Maybe the reason we’re being inundated with images of creatures that feed on human flesh and blood — who actually make it seem attractive — is because we’re headed in that direction ourselves. Maybe all our zombie and vampire stories are just preparing us mentally for the concept of humans as food.
- “And Rick Perry has just been inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America.”
- “Dad, this is my boyfriend, Joe Francis.”
- “Community” Canceled by NBC; Will Be Replaced by “Whitney” Reruns
- Killer robots filled with more killer robots. What could possibly go wrong?
- Plagues for The New Millennium. Now with Sex-Organ Burrowing Beetles. And Kardashians. Or is that redundant?
- “In other news, Ben & Jerry’s has announced it will replace all ingredients in its ice cream with vegan alternatives.”
Halloween Night will feature the premiere of “The Walking Dead,” which will no doubt scare the crap out of millions of people. Just from the trailer, it looks fantastically engaging and well-made.
AMC is going all out to promote the show, including sponsoring a “zombie invasion” that hit several U.S. cities yesterday.
The Zombiepocalypse still ranks as one of our most persistent nightmares, and shows no signs of dying — Ha! Wordplay! — any time soon. All the other apocalypses waiting in the wings still can’t match the terror and spectacle of the idea of the dead rising to feed on the living.
But I’m struck by the shift in tone in the tales of the zombie hordes these days. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was an intense, moody, claustrophobic film. The ghouls were a relentless tide against the humans stuck in the house, and the film’s stark black-and-white matched the inevitable conclusion of death and despair. Put simply, nobody was having any fun inside the movie.
That changed with Sam Raimi’s bleakly funny Evil Dead 2. The Deadites in that movie might have been ravenous beasts of a hellish necroworld out to devour the flesh and souls of the living — but that didn’t mean they weren’t occasionally hilarious. And the fact that they were defeated by a retail clerk with a chainsaw was a pretty cheerful sign. It said the Zombipocalypse might be lethal, but it would at least be interesting.
That’s part of the reason I love two of my favorite zombie stories, World War Z and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. Both WWZ and DOD get weirdly and deeply specific about spread of the plague, like a PowerPoint on vectors of zombie infection from the CDC.
There’s also something inconsequential about all the zombie hordes. In DOD, I was terrified for the safety of a dog sent as a messenger through a crowd of the undead — but laughed out loud at the survivors driving golf balls at the undead heads in that same crowd. This might be due to the fact that I’m just kind of a sick bastard, but I know I wasn’t alone when I was laughing. As in Shaun of the Dead, the zombies are meant to be shuffling targets; you could do whatever you wanted to them. (Only in Romero’s movies, as cheesy as they can be, do I get an idea of the undead as victims who are as unlucky as the human survivors.) It’s Us vs. Them at its most basic.
There’s a weird kind of hope in the zombie movies as well. It’s almost like a sigh of relief once the planet has been wiped nearly clean of humanity; as if we can look at Armageddon finally arrived and say, “Well, thank God that’s over.” Another imperfect metaphor: it’s like ripping off the band-aid in one quick swoop. Sure, it’s painful, but it beats hell out of that slow, torturous peeling. And hey, look — underneath, that’s fresh clean skin. My friend Glenn pointed out I Am Legend — which features Will Smith roaring down the deserted streets of Manhattan in a brand-new Mustang — actually makes being the sole survivor of the end of the world look sort of fun. In World War Z, the planet is inarguably better off after the zombie war — everyone is a little sadder but wiser and more compassionate. There’s even cream soda in the new world, so it’s not all bad news. It’s the idea of a fresh start after a horrible, lingering illness — that just happened to end with rotting corpses walking around chomping on friends and neighbors.
There’s a lot of this sentiment mirrored in our culture right now. People talk about a coming revolution, or the attack of the New World Order, with teeth bared in a too-wide smile, as if they can’t wait for the shit to finally hit the fan. It’s an understandable impulse. When things are uncertain and scary, it feels good to have an identifiable, clearly evil enemy.
But it seems like that’s yesterday’s news in zombie evolution now.
I’ve read the first volume of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, on which the AMC series is based. I admit, I’m not very far into the book, and haven’t even seen the show yet, but it seems different, despite all it has in common with its predecessors. Unlike previous zombie tales, there’s no joy in smashing zombie skulls; one of the infected is even allowed to turn quietly in a hopes of a kind of reunion with his undead family. There’s also no real joy in the rebirth of the world. Everyone looks around at the ruins of civilization with the dazed expression of a driver after a car crash. The protagonist, Rick, a former small-town sheriff, is a perfect lens to view the end of the world. Decent and pragmatic and uncommonly brave, he focuses on what’s in front of him. Most important, he is resigned to the fact that the old world is gone and it’s not coming back.
That’s the thing I feel most strongly when looking at the abandoned skyscrapers, the dead tank in the city streets, the discarded and empty cars on the road: regret. The dead might be up and walking, but this world is still in mourning. And I can’t help but wonder what that says about us, right now. I wonder what it means that we’re already rehearsing the funeral for the world where we live.
I admit, I don’t love Halloween the way I did when I was a kid. I don’t spend hours trying on the rubber masks in the costume aisle at the drug store anymore, and I don’t stay up late with the monster movie marathon. Don’t get me wrong: I still love it, but it’s not marked with a big red circle on my calendar anymore.
Which is sort of sad, because it seems like everyone else in America has finally gotten into the habits that made me weird and strange back then. Paranormal Activity 2 opened with the biggest box-office gross of any horror movie ever this weekend. There are at least seven ongoing series with the word “paranormal” in their titles; that doesn’t even include shows like “Fringe,” “The Event,” “Supernatural,” “The Vampire Diaries,” and all the rest that feature monsters, conspiracies and mad scientists. And one of the most anticipated new fall TV shows, “The Walking Dead,” will premiere on Oct. 31, and it’s expected to draw huge audiences, even though my pal James Hibberd describes it as “the most gory series ever to air on TV.”
These are high times for a horror fan. I was a guest on a talk show a couple weeks ago on Minnesota Public Radio, the home of Lake Woebegone, talking about the reasons we’re all so enamored of the undead now. I heard the question a lot when I was on my book tour as well, and for me, the answer seems pretty simple: people are scared. And when they’re scared, they want to tame monsters. Scary stories — whether in books, or horror movies, or TV shows — are the way we confront fears that are too big for us in the real world.
A lot of other people have already pointed this out. In the 1950s, people were terrified of Soviet hordes overseas and hidden Communist moles in America, so the theaters were booked with invaders from Mars and body snatchers.
Sixty years later, many of the ideas we only saw in horror movies in the past have become part of the everyday culture. There are significant numbers of people in America who believe we’ve got an Antichrist Manchurian Candidate in the White House; that there’s a secret conspiracy waiting to round up citizens and place them in hidden underground prisons; that blood-drinking humanoid lizards are manipulating all of humanity.
If that’s what people are scared of in real life, then hordes of zombies and vampires are practically comforting. At least those can be slain with a stake to the heart or a sharp blow to the head.
This is why I chose to meld the paranormal and politics, the War on Terror with the War on Horror. There’s probably a reason Halloween is so close to Election Day: they’re both the times when our fears and demons come out to dance. And as frightening and frightened as our culture has become, I don’t see any of the ghouls shuffling back to the graveyard any time soon.